Heart’s founding bassist mulls over influences, reunion performance
By David Sands
March 4, 2015
Anyone who’s rocked out to the adrenaline-racing bass lines of Heart’s “Magic Man” understands the crucial role Steve Fossen played in summoning forth the group’s rhythmic sorcery.
As the founding bassist of the legendary Seattle band, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee’s contributions to records like “Little Queen” helped Heart sell tens of millions of albums and carve out their own hard rocking folk-infused niche on the radio dial. Later he played with rock supergroup Alias, whose 1990 song, “More Than Words Can Say,” catapulted to second on the Billboard Hot 100.
FBPO’s Jon Liebman sat down with him recently to get a first-hand account of his influences, time with Heart and current project, Heart By Heart.
Like many greats, Fossen felt a pull towards music early in life.
At age four, he could pick out melodies on an electric organ. In elementary school, Fossen taught himself how to play “The Star Spangled Banner” on the trumpet in a single weekend. This led to his first regular gig, playing the tune at school functions.
His time with the trumpet was short-lived, though, as he soon became infatuated with the guitar. That study began with slide guitar lessons, since his hands weren’t yet big enough to make chords properly on a six-string.
Fossen picked up his first bass after a minor run in with the law. As punishment for hitchhiking, he was forced to go downtown with a parent to watch a mandatory educational film.
“I had been talking about electric bass, and some of my friends were getting started on musical instruments,” Fossen says. “On the way home, my father asked if I wanted to rent a bass and amp to see if I liked it. Boy, did I like it! No one could pry it out of my hands.”
Paul McCartney topped Fossen’s favorite musician list during his formative years, due in no small part to the Beatle’s unforgettably melodic bass lines. The Stones’ Bill Wyman and Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones followed in close succession. Prog rock was on his radar too, with the tone King Crimson’s Greg Lake achieved playing a Fender Jazz Bass blowing his then-developing mind.
The young bassist cut his teeth with a band called the Traitors, playing popular hits by groups like the Beatles, Yardbirds and local favorites Don and the Goodtimes. After that, he joined Great White Elephant, a group headlined by popular Seattle singer Don Wilhelm.
Heart grew out of Fossen’s collaboration with guitarist Roger Fisher. In 1967 they assembled a group called the Army, with Wilhelm playing guitar, keys and vocals and Ray Schaefer on drums.
Over the next few years, the band sifted through names—first White Heart, then simply Heart—as members drifted in and out. Fossen and Fisher fell into debt, briefly ending up homeless.
Their fortunes turned around after Ann Wilson came aboard as a singer, guitar player and flutist in the early 1970s. Under the name Hocus Pocus, the band took off like a rocket. Taverns and bars started booking them five or six nights a week, with multiple sets a night.
Then came a change of scene. Wilson, Fossen and Roger Fisher relocated to Vancouver, reforming with two new Canadian musicians, Brian Johnstone and John Hanna. Ann’s sister, Nancy, joined as a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist in 1974.
Readopting the name Heart, they again made a space for themselves playing tunes by the Beatles, Moody Blues, Yes and Elton John, as well as a Led Zeppelin medley and reworked Zeppelin songs. Their sound attracted the attention of Mushroom Records, which only wanted to sign Ann. She held out, though, insisting the label work with the entire band.
For Heart’s debut album, Dreamboat Annie, Johnstone and Hanna were replaced by drummer Mike Derosier and studio musician Howard Leese. Fossen played a key role crafting that album’s first song, “Magic Man.”
“I came up with the ‘chunk-chunk’ vibe of the whole song, and I wrote the music bed for the lead guitar and Moog solos,” he says. “To this day, ‘Magic Man’ radio tests among the top ten rock songs on classic radio.”
The album would exceed a million sales and chart seventh on the Billboard charts. Fossen, Fisher, Derosier, Leese and the Wilson sisters stuck together until 1979, recording a string of albums that would inspire rock fans worldwide.
In 2013, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted these six original Heart members.
During the ceremony, they reunited briefly to play “Crazy On You.” Afterwards current members performed “Barracuda” backed by Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, Mike McCready of Pearl Jam and Jerry Cantrell of Alice In Chains.
While Fossen says it was “a thrill and honor” to perform with the original lineup again, he’s not completely without regrets.
“In my opinion, it was too bad for the fans of Heart that Ann and Nancy chose not to have their fellow inductees play ‘Barracuda.’ Mike Derosier’s drums and Roger Fisher’s intro guitar riff are legendary,” he tells FBPO. “I can appreciate their efforts to include so many members of the Seattle scene and their current band, but I felt like an authentic stellar moment in rock and roll history was missed.”
Asked about the classic ‘59 Fender Precision Bass he used to record “Dreamboat Annie,” Fossen says its now enjoying retirement, though he’s still using another Fender P-Bass from the same year.
For amplification, he relies on a mid 1970s Ampeg SVT head and a couple of SVT-210AV cabinets, Evidence Audio Lyric HG and Forte cables with a Radial Engineering Firefly DI for recording and live shows. Fossen’s a big believer in Ampeg all-tube amps. His strings are Rotosound stainless roundwound, DR nickel Hi-Beams and La Bella Deep Talking flats. He doesn’t use pedals, except for tuning, and avoids effects.
As for his current efforts, Fossen now holds down the bass for Heart By Heart, a spin-off group that plays classic Heart tunes from the 1970s and 80s.
This new group got its start in 2008, when Roger Fisher, Derosier and Fossen picked vocalist Somar Macek to sing Heart tunes at a Seattle party for some musician friends. The singer and bassist began running into each other at nightclubs and fell in love. Word got out the couple was singing Heart songs at small gatherings, and they started getting small gigs. Eventually Derosier and guitarist Randy Hansen joined the fun, and things snowballed from there.
“One thing led to another, and Heart By Heart started getting hired to do shows around town,” says Fossen. “Then along came Bob Rivers and Lizzy Daymont, and the band started to take off. Now we are doing shows on the east and west coasts and getting offers from around the country.”
The groundbreaking bassist is clearly enamored with his current project, proud to have a spin-off band that stays so close to its roots.
“We have the original recording and touring rhythm section plus excellent singers and musicians who respect and honor the historical significance of the music that Mike Derosier and I helped create, arrange and record,” he says. “Heart By Heart is a band where all members share a tremendous desire to play as well as possible at all times and never back down from the challenge of getting better.”